Leading the way to Antarctica

Several dozen people, mostly women, wearing cold-weather gear on a ship deck, with snow-covered cliffs in the background.

"I hope to bring back and share a sense that there’s really nothing you cannot do as long as you have the motivation to do it."

– Catherine Sorbara

Catherine Sorbara (MSc ’09) grew up in the small town of Pelham in Ontario’s Niagara region. After completing a master’s in biochemistry at uOttawa's Faculty of Medicine, she spent five years in Munich, Germany, doing a medical life sciences PhD focused on cell damage in multiple sclerosis.

Now living in Cambridge, U.K., she worked for 18 months as a publishing editor at the Royal Society of Chemistry before becoming chief operations officer at the Cheeky Scientist Association. The U.S.-based company, which provides online training for academics seeking to transition to work in industry, points to a Royal Society report indicating that only a tiny proportion of science PhD holders (about one in 222 in the U.K.) become tenured professors. “In other words, many extremely talented people need somewhere else to go,” Sorbara says.

Last year, she was elected chair of the Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering (AWISE), which hosts talks, workshops and networking opportunities for its 70 members. The first event she organized in her new role proved to be life-changing: she became captivated by Homeward Bound, a global movement to build a support network of women leaders in science to create change. Tabaret editor Kelly Haggart spoke with Sorbara to learn more.

Catherine Sorbara:

Last year, Deborah Pardo, a French population ecologist, gave an inspirational talk at a Cambridge AWISE event about her experience with Homeward Bound. The initiative aims to raise awareness about the cost of the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, particularly in STEM, and to do something about it.

Homeward Bound is the brainchild of Fabian Dattner, a prominent Australian activist on women’s leadership. She dreamed up the idea of creating a network of women scientists as part of a broader effort to boost women’s influence in policy and decision-making worldwide, for the health of the planet.

Evidence shows that women typically lead with more compassion and empathy, and their negotiation style tends to be more open and inclusive. This is in line with modern ideas of transformative leadership, something that is desperately needed to halt the damage that we are doing to the Earth.

Homeward Bound postcard shows snow-covered cliffs and the tagline “Mother Nature needs her daughters.”

The centrepiece of this inspiring and ambitious undertaking involves a series of all-female expeditions to Antarctica. These three-week trips will take place annually for 10 years and include 1,000 women scientists in all. I was awestruck by Deborah’s account of the December 2016 maiden voyage and ran up afterward to ask how I could become involved. She said applications for the next trip closed in three days, so I pulled together an application — and was astonished and thrilled to be selected.

There were 76 participants on the first expedition, and there will be 80 on mine. We will set off from Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina in February 2018, and I’m hoping I don’t get seasick! We’ll cross the Drake Passage, known as the world’s roughest stretch of sea, where the Atlantic meets the Pacific. They call it the washing machine because of the way the water hits the windows of the boat and churns around.

People on a ship deck, wearing cold-weather gear, look out toward snow-covered mountains rising from the sea

But the Homeward Bound journey involves much more than the trip itself. For a year beforehand, we undergo training in five areas: leadership development, strategic capability, personal visibility and science communication, science collaboration, and reflective journaling as a tool to encourage critical analysis and the sharing of insights. During the trip, we will receive training in these same areas from experts on board and from others via video link.

In Antarctica, we will bear witness to a part of the planet already among the hardest hit by climate change. We will also collaborate on projects of our own choosing. Last year, topics included carbon offset, climate science communication and the influence of women in climate change policy.

Two penguins standing on ice

My travelling companions come from diverse backgrounds and parts of the world. I’ve met in person some of the eight women in the U.K. who will be on the ship and have met all the others — including two currently based in Canada — through our monthly video-conversations with the whole group.

Homeward Bound has been an amazing journey so far. Any woman with a STEM background is welcome to apply for a future trip, and I’d encourage them to do so. I’m really excited to share this experience with the uOttawa community, as well as with my fellow “cheekies” — all the women I’ve met in the Cheeky Scientist Association.

A seal lying on its side on the ice

Women PhDs often suffer from imposter syndrome and are not sure what they’re capable of achieving outside their niche fields. After taking part in Homeward Bound, and being surrounded and inspired by women doing impressive work in so many different fields, I hope to bring back and share a sense that there’s really nothing you cannot do, as long as you have the motivation to do it.

Catherine Sorbara was the featured speaker at a uOttawa alumni event in London, U.K., on September 20, 2017: “What Antarctica Can Teach Us: An Expedition to the Edge of the World to Fight Climate Change and Gender Inequality.”

Homeward Bound participants raise about $20,000 each, half the cost of their trip to Antarctica. Read more about the journey on Sorbara's crowdfunding site.

Watch a video about the first expedition by Deborah Pardo.

Several people, mostly women, wearing cold-weather gear on a ship deck

Photos of the 2016 Homeward Bound Antarctic trip by Deborah Pardo


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